Addressing the Scientific Creativity Crisis

The biggest obstacles to breakthrough innovations are the basic assumptions we make that frame our view of the world. It’s part of a “creativity crisis” in science, but there are ways to combat it, says innovation expert Roberta Ness.

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Inventors and engineers are making huge advances these days, as anyone with a smartphone or familiar with 3D printing will tell you. In basic science, however, a creativity crisis is holding back progress against some of the greatest threats to human health and prosperity, says innovation expert Roberta Ness. She talked about the causes and potential solutions to the creativity crisis at TEDMED 2015.

“The problem is that science, as a discipline, has become too cautious,” says Ness, a former dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health and vice president for innovation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

That caution is fed by competition for funding and commercialization opportunities, which leads scientists to focus too much on quick-hit research with obvious benefits. True breakthroughs, however, often stem from basic research that helps us understand things in different ways, according to Ness.

“These really foundational breakthroughs like germ theory, or even the discovery of DNA, can't be patented, can't be profited from,” Ness says. “If you accomplish these really fundamental breakthroughs, they benefit society and ultimately they spin off hundreds or thousands of new patents.”
 

Using frame breaks

Breaking through those barriers won’t be easy, because it requires challenging assumptions we don’t even realize we’re making, Ness says. “My very strong belief is that to make real progress in areas such as Alzheimer’s, depression and cancer, which are so devastating, it will take frame breaks, true leaps of thinking.”

To illustrate her point, Ness often challenges audiences to solve a murder mystery.

“Gary and Nancy are lying dead on the floor. Around them is a puddle of water and some shards of broken glass. What happened?” she asks. Most people struggle for answers with so little evidence until she poses another question: “What if I told you … Gary and Nancy are fish?”

That’s what Ness calls “a frame break,” because it challenges a basic assumption that frames our view of the world.

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Challenging convention with immuno-oncology

There are examples of frame breaks throughout the history of science. In oncology, for example, scientists long assumed that fighting cancer required either removing cancer cells surgically or using radiation and/or drugs to kill them. Another approach – long discounted, but now resurgent – involves triggering the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells. And that is when immunology and oncology come together.

Getting the scientific mainstream to see the potential of immuno-oncology required a frame break because “established science held that cancer cells knew how to hide from the immune system,” says Diane Hollenbaugh, senior director of oncology discovery at AbbVie Biotherapeutics, a center of innovation in oncology R&D located in Redwood City, Calif.

The immune system is designed to distinguish between normal cells and those it believes don’t belong. That way, the immune system can attack the “invaders” but leave normal cells alone. A key part of that process are "checkpoints" – parts of immune system cells that need to be activated or inactivated to start an immune response. Cancer cells sometimes find ways to flip the switch on these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system.[1]

Some of the first immuno-oncology drugs reaching patients are checkpoint inhibitors – antibodies designed to prevent cancer cells from flipping that switch to hide from the immune system.
 

Checkpoint inhibitors and beyond

AbbVie has a nascent immuno-oncology program, and while our scientists are working to understand checkpoint inhibitors, they also are looking at other ways the immune system might be triggered to fight cancer.

“There are all kinds of ways cancer cells avoid detection by the immune system, and checkpoint inhibitors are just one of them,” says Steve Davidsen, AbbVie’s vice president of Discovery Research for Oncology.

Anil Singhal, vice president of R&D and head of AbbVie Biotherapeutics, agrees. “Instead of jumping on the bandwagon of developing the same proteins, we’re going to look more holistically at the immune system and the ways we might modulate the system,” he says. “This could lead to other targets that could lead to other treatments for cancer or immune diseases.”

It’s not the cautious approach others are taking, but it’s part of the company’s commitment to having a remarkable impact on patients’ lives.

About TEDMED: AbbVie is an innovation sponsor of TEDMED 2015. The conference brings together speakers and participants with diverse perspectives to discuss and share ideas with the power to accelerate innovation in health and medicine.

[1] http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/immunotherapy/cancer-immunotherapy-immune-checkpoint-inhibitors

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Jaquelin Finley
Email: jaquelin.finley@abbvie.com
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